≠: A Brief Lesson in False Equivalencies
≠ is the mathematical symbol for inequation, but you may also see it (or its ASCII friendly cousin =/=) show up in online discussions where someone is calling out a false equivalency. This is a rhetorical device where two things are equated in an unfair manner, usually to damn one thing with an association to another. Often, they are employed out of a sense of entitled ignorance where a person simply doesn’t wish to acknowledge important distinction that get in the way of condemnation.
Many false equivalencies have some element of equivalence that serves as the foundation for conflating two things. For example, consider the diagram below.
(Left Photo by Dulup/Flickr | Right Photo by filmresearch/Flickr )
Now, there are a number of things these two images have in common. Both are photos. Both are visual representations of rabbits. But they aren’t really the same, either. One is a photograph of an actual rabbit while the other is a photograph of embroidery in the shape of a cartoon rabbit. They differ in meaningful and significant ways which makes it perilous to conflate the two as if there are no distinctions between them.
One of the most common ways we see false equivalencies come up in internet discussions is when one group of people with a valid complaint about something are conflated with people who have an invalid complaint. Usually when a privileged group wishes to undermine reservations about problematic behavior by associating those issues with actually problematic attacks. Let’s look at some examples:
Now, in each of these cases, both sides represent criticism. But the left side is criticism intending to enforce privilege, criticism that essentially faults the party for not knowing its place. The right side is criticism of an enforcement of privilege, calling out actions and comments that work to stigmatize and oppress disenfranchised groups. So, even though both sides offer complaint, they really aren’t the same and should absolutely not be conflated.
It is also worth noting that a person criticizing someone for their expression of privilege has no obligation to defend that person when someone else attempts to enforce privilege on them. These distinctions are important in judging how to respond to inequal attacks, but they shouldn’t be used to try to bully people into condemning different attacks just to prove that their complaints are virtuous. If a person wrongs you, you owe them no sympathy. Certainly not as a demonstration of how you are the “better person”. Such standards are inherently oppressive and by their very nature hold disenfranchised communities to more strict standards of behavior than their oppressors. That’s bullshit. They get to make their own decision about what to care about in such instances. The one glaring exception would be cases where such attacks are enforcing your own privileges. As an example, a white man may be supportive of complaints from women of color about the HBO series Girls, its not okay for them to use those complaints as a justification to make sexist remarks about Lena Dunham. Using valid criticism as a cover for privileged bullshit is appropriative and demeaning to those with serious concerns about problematic behavior. And it only provides ammunition for those who want to make false equivalencies.